Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

It has been very cold around here lately. Yesterday I saw the lowest reading I have ever seen on my front porch thermometer: -0.6F. If you’re in Minnesota, that’s not very cold, but I’m a transplanted Californian living in New England, so that’s plenty cold. The larger problem for me is the road conditions. We have been receiving snow storms every third day or so, and the plows do not seem to worry all that much about actually, you know, plowing. Many of the back roads, the roads I usually ride on, have a lot of ice on them, making riding very hazardous.

Yesterday, instead of going for a long ride in the deep freeze, Dorothy and I headed down to New Haven, where we met the Suitcases of Courage at the Beinecke Rare Book Library on the Yale campus. If you have not seen the Beinecke, it is an architectural wonder. Built in the early 1960s, it has that sort of self-satisfied, clean almost to austerity look of modern architecture, but, like the best of modernism, it really transcends its time period. From the outside, it is a very severe looking rectangular box, a pale sepulcher with large pale panels of marble forming the facade. As you approach, no windows are visible. The five-story main part of the building floats in a sunken plaza above a ground floor faced with dark glass. Inside, a glass enclosed column rises the entire height of the building; this houses the main stacks, and you can see shelves upon shelves of old, leather-bound volumes. A reception desk is flanked by twin stairways that rise to the main exhibition area.

Once you walk up these stairs, the full effect of the building’s design hits. The marble panels on the facade are translucent, and, on a sunny day, they glow with a dark, creamy, textured light. The architect who designed the building, Gordon Bunshaft, wanted the structure to be plain and even harsh on the outside but a jewel inside. He compared it to a cathedral that has a forbidding appearance but a bright, welcoming interior. It truly is an amazing building, and well worth the trip.

Even better than the architecture were the treasures inside. The library is about to open an exhibit called “Book of Secrets,” an installation featuring important works on alchemy from the early modern period to the present. The books were fascinating, with illustrations of the strange mixture of occult speculation and rudimentary attempts to unlock the mysteries of chemistry. Drawings of dragons covered with emblems representing salt, mercury, and sulphur appeared next to diagrams of laboratory apparatus.

After browsing the collection, we headed for the Book Trader Cafe, a used book story on Chapel Street. Dorothy and I had been here once before, and I remembered finding many good books on the shelves. A used book store in a college town in a great thing, and I found dozens of books I could take home, but I limited myself to just a few. After this, Dorothy and Mrs. Suitcase went to Atticus Book Store and Cafe, while Mr. Suitcase and I went to College Street Cycles, the local bike shop.

The bike shop is a tiny storefront with room for a workshop area and a couple of bikes. The walls and ceiling fairly drip with bike things–tires, saddles, tubes, locks, and on and on. Basso, a large black Labrador, takes his job of greeting customers seriously, with a solemnity not often found in a Lab. He took a great liking to me, partly because I seemed to know just what parts of the Labrador ear to rub. We chatted with the guys in the shop for a while–we knew a lot of the same racers–before heading back to Atticus. After buying a couple more books, we were hungry and walked back across campus to Wall Street Pizza, where the battered, graffiti-carved booths fail to hint at the great pizza that comes out of the ovens.

Here are the books I ended up with:

  • The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
  • Sisters of the Earth, edited by Lorraine Anderson
  • Turn, Magic Wheel, by Dawn Powell
  • The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin
  • The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (the UK edition, no less)
  • An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke
  • Ghost, by Alan Lightman

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More Naked Book Lust

Yesterday we again met the Suitcases of Courage and the Sprinters della Casa for an excursion.  Last week it was sheep and this week it was Edith Wharton.  When Mrs SoC saw Dorothy reading an Edith Wharton book at one of the races this past summer, she mentioned that she was very interested in seeing Wharton’s house in Lenox before it was too late; the foundation that runs the site is hurting financially and they are worried about their future ability to keep the place going.  Because we are always interested in making pilgrimages to authors’ homes, we enthusiastically agreed to take the trip to Massachusetts.

Before we made it to The Mount, though, we had to stop at another used bookstore.  New England, bibliophiles should know, is absolutely filled with small, odd, hidden bookstores.  Some of them have more atmosphere than merchandise, while others fill the shelves with so much merchandise that the atmosphere is thinned considerably.  Some cater to special interests while other seem to have a little bit of everything.  The Berkshire Book Company in Sheffield is one of my new favorites.

The BBC fills a small red barn next to a white clapboard house on Route 7 in Sheffield.  When we arrived, the bespectacled lady sitting behind the desk told us that most of the books were on sale, with different rooms offering different discounts.  Then she warned us that the upstairs room was filled with books not alphabetized; these books were in some sort of numeric order to make internet order processing easier.  If we felt like browsing, we could have some fun upstairs, she said.

At this, I felt a little disappointed.  I didn’t think we really had the time to dig into the treasures, especially treasures arranged in some haphazard scheme.  However, I needn’t have worried.  I was in the presence of fellow book geeks, and we soon fell into our separate trances as we grazed through the aisles.

The rows of books immediately sucked me into that zone where I dreamily focus on the books, and any interruption becomes an almost unbearable intrusion.  I don’t care about the awesome first edition you just found–I’m eagerly digging through the ancient, dusty nineteenth century tomes.  What’s this?  An 1879 illustrated edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer?  And it’s only twenty bucks?  Wait!  All of the books in this room are thirty percent off!  I manfully fight the urge to dance a happy little jig right there in front of the shelves.

As we drove up to Sheffield, we passed a sign that made me laugh.  It said “You are Entering The Berkshires, America’s Cultured Resort.”  As opposed to America’s philistine resort?  I could laugh, but the Berkshire bookstores certainly carry some cultured volumes.  Where else would I find two facsimile reprints of nineteenth-century books?  One is a copy of Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife ($8.50, but it’s 50% off!), and the other is the 1852 gift book, The Home Book of the Picturesque, featuring an essay by Susan Fenimore Cooper.  I also came away with a paperback copy of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure.  I know nothing about this book or the author, but it looks intriguing.  One of the cover blurbs says “If Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert had shown as much appetite for culinary adventures as he did for a certain nymphet, The Debt to Pleasure is the book he might have written.”  Who can resist that?

Now, finally, we get to The Mount.  I won’t go into great detail about Edith Wharton’s magnificent home, except to say that it is a lovely house on lovely grounds.  Check out the link I posted above for more information, and, while you’re there, think about making a donation to help preserve the place.  It is worth it.  We took a guided tour led by a guide who really seemed to know the architectural heritage as well as the philosophy guiding Wharton’s house design.  The lower floors are well-restored, but without any of the Wharton’s furniture, which has been lost or sold in the many years since the Whartons moved out.  The upper floor, though, shows the ravages of time and neglect.  There the paint is chipping and the ceiling shows water damage that occurred when a water pipe burst in the winter.  The plaster is falling away, leaving a gap-toothed view of the lath beneath.  The gardens, however, are in beautiful condition, even in the autumn, inspiring me to ponder the hours and hours of labor involved in keeping the hedges trimmed, the flower beds weeded, and the lawns immaculately mowed.  The southern wing and the large stables on the north side of the property attest to the number of servants needed to keep such a home running smoothly.  I’m sure Wharton had no use at all for a book like Lydia Child’s Frugal Housewife.

After our tour of the house, we of course browsed the gift store, where I did not restrain the urge to buy more books.  I came away with an anthology of Wharton’s ghost stories and The Writing of Fiction.  We then strolled over the grounds and contemplated the possibility of creating a commune, where we could collectively, afford to live in a grand estate that, individually, we could never, ever manage.  It sounds like a great idea, but I am haunted by images of Brook Farm, the Transcendentalists’ failed experiment in communal artistic living.  Interestingly, coincidentally, when we met earlier in the day at a diner in Canaan (the promised land–can the symbolism pile up any higher?), I noticed a truck in the parking lot with “Brook Farm” stencilled across the door.  Was fate trying to send a message?

Afterward, with thoughts of magnificent estates and communes that ironically undermine the very principles of individual wealth that produced the magnificent estates still swirling in our brains, we departed for Great Barrington, another one of those ridiculously charming New England towns.  Dinner, long conversations that ranged from books to bikes (and bikes, and bikes, and bikes) and then, finally, homeward.

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Some Mountain Goodness

I intended posting this a couple of weeks ago, but things got in the way.  So, without further delay, here is some Mountain Goodness.  Clicking the thumbnails should biggify.

Here is the beginning of our epic hike.  Please remember that I had cracked my rib only a few days earlier.

Muttboy taking a break before the climbing gets really steep on the Glen Boulder trail.  He is a photogenic beast.

At timberline, with the Whites spreading out majestically to the east.

The rugged mountain man and his faithful canine companion.

The rugged mountain woman wending her way through the alpine scree.

On top of the world.  It’s disorienting to climb all morning in a rugged wilderness to find yourself at a major tourist destination with a parking lot and fat tourists in flip flops wandering around the gift shop.  Note the rugged mountain man look, complete with Julbo glacier glasses and a cloud colored bandanna.

In Tuckerman Ravine, Muttboy starts to show some signs of fatigue.  He is a tough mountain dog, though, and soldiers on.

The way down Tuckerman Ravine is steep.  It requires climbing from boulder to boulder as if walking down a giant, ungainly staircase made of stone.

The Bowl.  A little photo miserably fails to capture the gandeur of the scene.  You can easily see how the poets were inspired by the sublime sight.

At the bottom.  Muttboy looks ridiculously fresh.

And here he is a couple of days later, begging a treat on top of Stratton Mountain.

And let’s end with a picture of serenity–Stratton Pond, one of my favorite places in Vermont.

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Fine Art

I was not expecting to be able to go with Dorothy to the museum today because I received that dreaded envelope in the mail a couple of months ago–the one that says “Jury Administration” on the return address.  However, last night I called the number they provided and learned that my juror pool was canceled and my jury duty fulfilled.  That’s what I call serving my civic duty.

This meant my day was free, so Dorothy and I drove to Katonah, where we met a friend for lunch and a trip to the Katonah Museum of Art.  As we sat down, the friend seemed to be trying to say something.  She sort of stammered and waved a Bed Bath and Beyond bag around vaguely, and I figured that she was trying to ask Dorothy something without actually asking it.  Dorothy’s face suddenly lit up in recognition, and she turned to me.  “Remember when I said I had another birthday present for you but it wasn’t ready yet?”

I did remember, now that she mentioned it, though my birthday was nearly two months ago.  “Well, this is it,” she said and our friend handed over the bag.

I opened it and pulled out a large picture mat.  When I turned it over, I saw that it was a pencil portrait of Muttboy.  As it turns out, our friend wanted to find some project to keep her mother occupied.  She heard from Dorothy that my birthday was approaching, so she suggested that her mother could put her artistic talents to use in drawing a portrait for me.  Dorothy found a good photo of Muttboy and passed it on.  Some things got in the way–our friend’s mother moved from new York to Connecticut, for one–but the portrait was finally ready.

I really love it.  I immediately recognized which photo Dorothy had chosen: one where we are hiking near Bear Mountain in northwestern Connecticut.  Muttboy is staring off in the distance with that long-suffering but eager look that says, “I know you need to stop, but I need to keep hiking, so could we please, please get going again?”  It is probably a little silly to have a portrait of your dog, but I think it is perfect.

After lunch, we headed to the museum.  There are several small museums like this one around our area, and they are really perfect for a quick afternoon visit.  The Katonah Museum is small enough that you can see the full exhibit, and spend a lot of time carefully looking at the paintings, but be finished in a couple of hours.  Although I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art more than I can say, I get a serious and painful case of museum back after spending too much time wandering the halls.  The smaller museums do not overload you with too much of a good thing.

To my great delight, the museum’s special exhibit was called “All Things Bright and Beautiful: California Impressionists” (running through October 5, so go soon).  The paintings, all done in the first 25 or 30 years of the 20th century owed an obvious debt to the French Impressionists, but the scenes, the light, the palette, were all quintessentially Californian.  I did not recognize any of the artists’ names, which probably says more about my poor training in art history than anything else, but I was completely taken by their vision.  The scenes of the rugged, squared-off rocks jutting into the Pacific mesmerized me with the deep turquoise and cobalt of the sea against the harsh geometry of the stone.  Several artists showed their deep fascination with the California poppy, and one landscape (sadly, not one shown on the museum website, so I can’t give you a link) showed the California hills covered in oaks and eucalyptus in the distance, with the foreground a rich mixture of the golden poppies and dark lupines.  A trail winds through the flowers, and the artist got the color of the soil–that ruddy brown sandy soil of the coast–exactly right.  I found myself growing homesick for a place that does not exist any more.  It was more than a little sad to think that the landscapes depicted in the paintings are now covered with subdivisions and strip malls.

Sometimes I think that is the real reason I can’t go back to California.  California has always had that dream-like quality; there is something not quite real about it.  Even when I was a little kid, I felt that the best California was something not quite reachable, something strangely remote and ineffable.  For me now, even that semi-real, semi-dream state is gone and I can only mourn the loss of a place I knew as intimately as I know myself, but a place that nevertheless remained as aloof and unquantifiable as an old, half-forgotten acquaintance.

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The Definition of Irony

On Wednesday, we went to Salem, Massachusetts, for my birthday.  I have been living on the east coast for over 12 years, and I haven’t made the pilgrimage to many of the famous American literature shrines yet, so this was my chance to start.  I teach The Scarlet Letter every fall in my American lit class, and I love Hawthorne (Dorothy got me a complete set of Hawthorne’s works back in 2002 when I finished my dissertation), so I really wanted to see the House of Seven Gables and some of the other Salem sites.

The town of Salem provides a textbook definition of irony.  Over 300 years after 19 accused “witches” were executed (and a 20th was pressed to death for not submitting to a trial), witches are everywhere, and many of these witches are the real thing–pentacle-wearing, spell-casting, patchouli-scented witches.  Everywhere you turn you see the city emblem–the silhouette of a witch flying on a broomstick (she even appears, this time riding a time-trial bike, in the logo for Salem Cycles).  There are several occult/new age/craft bookstores, and if you are in need of healing crystals or an athame, you are in luck.  In short, it is a town I could really grow to love.  I like witches but don’t quite have the dedication to become one myself.

However, we were not there for witches, as appealing as they are.  We first stopped at the House of Seven Gables, where a compound of several old houses, including Hawthorne’s birthplace, stands.  The old houses are fascinating, and the tour of the house is great fun, especially for a Hawthorne fiend like me.  In the dining room is a secret door that leads to a hidden staircase winding its narrow way around the chimney to a tiny garret room.  Although this was not part of the original house, the woman who decided to save the house back around 1907 thought it needed more of a connection to Hawthorne’s novel, so she had the architects put in the secret stairs that Clifford uses in the novel.

After the house tour, we visited the Peabody Essex Museum.  As I was looking around the big atrium of the museum, I realized that one thing I really like about museums is their architecture.  The new Getty museum in Los Angeles is one of those museums for me–it is an extremely impressive building in its own right–and I would love to go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim with all of its swirling twists of titanium.  The PEM has this amazingly complex curved truss system that supports the roof and huge skylights.  The building itself is worth the price of admission.

This is not to say that the exhibits are not worthwhile, for they definitely are.  We spent about two hours touring before the dreaded “museum back” hit me and we had to leave.  Much of our time was taken up in the maritime and American wing, where my favorite exhibits were incredibly intricate models of sailing ships, many of them crafted by the sailors on board the ships.  One model is of the 1797 Indiaman Friendship, a replica of which sits in Salem harbor.  The model itself is almost large enough to sail on at about 12 feet long.

Our last museum of the day was truly goofy and perhaps stands as another example of irony.  It was my 41st birthday, but my deep desire was to do something that a 7-year-old would really like, so, to that end, we went to the Pirate Museum.  And yes, it was about as dumb as it sounds, but was nevertheless appealing, with goofy dioramas of dramatic (or melodramatic) scenes from pirate legends.  After the tour, I couldn’t contain myself and I bought a Jolly Roger and a copy of Under the Black Flag, a history of pirates.

It was a bookish birthday.  Dorothy got me two Michael Chabon books:  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and Gentlemen of the Road.  In Salem, I not only bought the pirate book, but The Peabody Sisters at the House of Seven Gables, and In the Devil’s Snare at the terrifying bookstore Dorothy mentions.

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I was pretty pleased with myself for handling my driving duties so well.  It was that sort of pleasure that appears after doing something difficult when you know you don’t have to do it again.  But now, here I am, driving through Usulutan again, this time with three of the girls on the trip in the back of the truck (nightmare visions of hitting a pothole, bouncing them out on the roads of Central American, losing my job), following a cattle truck through the early morning streets, hoping I don’t get lost.  Finally, half an hour or so on the other side of the city, the cattle truck turned left onto a dirt driveway and I followed.  Francisco stuck his arm out and signaled me to park, so I squeezed into a space and we all piled out of the truck and into a Salvadoran livestock market.

The day before, as we were reclining on hammocks after another day of digging, Sister came up to me with an idea.  Francisco was going to be taking a friend’s young bull to the livestock market, and maybe we could go along.  Maybe we could use some of the donation funds our delegation had brought down to buy a cow or a bull, have the neighboring community raise it, and then auction it off in November.  Maybe I would drive our cattle-buying crew and help with the deal.

I liked the idea a lot, and I immediately polled everyone in the delegation:  Should we pull out some of our donation money and use it for this?  They were all in favor, and some even kicked in some more money.  Get a good one, they told me.

So here I was, in the Central American version of a county fair.  It lacked all of the extra crap that makes US county fairs so deeply weird.  No carnival rides.  No carnival side show freaks.  No judging the best tomatoes.  No Miss Usulutan 2008 beauty contests.  Instead, there were several big tents set up with vendors selling things like saddles and tack, lariats and lassos, machetes and horseshoes.  A steady line of vehicles dropped off livestock.  I saw small pickup trucks with three cows somehow crammed and tied into the tiny beds.  I saw one of the really cool delivery tricycles (two wheels in front supporting a large carrying platform, one wheel in back) with a huge pig in the carry bin.  I saw a woman walking a pig on a leash.  The pig, though, really didn’t want to go, so it had locked its little legs and was squealing pitifully as the woman dragged it along, its skidding feet leaving twin lines in the dust.

All of the men had sticks, about three feet long and an inch in diameter with one end sharpened like a big pencil.  When the cattle got out of line, or even threatened to, someone would smack the hell out of the poor beat to get in back in line.  They liked to smack them on the snout, either because it made a great hollow thwacking noise or because it was an effective way to get the attention of a thousand pounds of walking steaks.

Francisco gave us a little tour of the market.  We passed the pig alley, where porkers of every size grunted and squealed.  One little boy had nearly a dozen little piglets, each on a string.  Then the goats, hairy critters with freaky eyes and tough-looking horns.  After that we wandered through the cattle section, where the various types of animals were grouped together.

There were big gray Brahmas sold in pairs as a yoked team for pulling the big wooden-wheeled oxcarts.  A huge brown cow and her calf were a relative bargain at only $1500.  We moved past the throngs of animals, looking for a likely beast that would fall within our price range.  We had $500 to spend, and we gathered together, whispering in conspiratorial tones.  Could we get two?  We decided to buy the bull from Francisco’s friend, who gave us a good deal–only $225 when he thought he would be able to get at least $250 for it.  We were sure we could find another good animal for $275.

Francisco’s friend explained to us what he looked for in a bull.  It had to be well-fed and not bony.  It had to have long legs, showing that it had some capacity for growth: this was especially important since we were looking for an animal that would get big enough to sell for a tidy profit by November.  As we scanned the crowd of animals, we saw a fine-looking beast, a Brahma mix with clear eyes, long legs, and a healthy-looking brown coat.  The girls were taken in by his dashing brown and white streaks and were not put off by the price–more than we had left.

After some negotiation, we managed to get the price down to $300, but that was still over our budget.  “I’ll make up the difference,” declared one of the girls.  “I really want this cow!”  “Bull,” we corrected her.  “It’s a bull.”  So, with the animal’s gender identity all straightened out, we completed the complicated financial transaction.  Francisco would be the owner of record, since the owner would have to be on hand in November when it came time to sell.  Then the inspector came over with a sheaf of papers that needed to be signed, but only after he checked the brands to make sure that there wasn’t any cattle rustling going on in these here parts.

For the rest of the trip, every time we passed a herd of cattle (and we passed many), we new Salvadoran cowboys and cowgirls would say, in tones of superior knowledge, “Our cows–no, wait–our bulls are better!”

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Driving Sister Elena

The theme of my trip was pushing boundaries.  So much of the experience was uncomfortable–not knowing the language, shyness around the Salvadorans, uncertainty about my role as a faculty guide–but I knew, despite my discomfort, that pushing through the hard parts would be more rewarding and allow me to come out on the other side of the experience changed in some way.  And thus my odyssey got frightening.

I returned with my crew from our work site on the first day filthy with sweat and dust but feeling very happy.  We all worked well together, slinging the pick, tossing the rocks, and we all seemed to feel somehow buoyant.  We leapt from the back of the truck and into the shade of the patio, ready to lounge in the hammocks for the hour or so until it was time for lunch.  Sister Elena came up to me and asked if I wanted to help her get water–we drank from 5 gallon jugs of purified water instead of from the tap–and I quickly agreed.

She took me off to the dining patio so we could eat lunch early and then go get water.  As I sat down, she told me that I would be driving.

I nearly choked.  I am a decent driver but very anxious.  Tailgaters, speeders, undimmed high beams, too aggressive drivers, too timid drivers–they all make my palms slick with sweat and my stomach knot with tension.  When Sister Elena asked me if I could drive a stick shift, the thought very briefly flitted through my mind that here was an out, but I could not lie.  Instead I echoed my grandfather’s words when a potential employer asked him if he could drive a particular kind of truck:  “Are the wheels round?”

And so we set out to Usulutan, a city of about 100,000 about 60 kilometers or so east of us, down CA-2.  The highway is two lanes wide, but the shoulders are extravagant, considering, and they are also necessary.  Huge–really, really huge–trucks overloaded with tall piles of sugar cane crawl down the highway at 40 kph.  Old pickups with more rust than paint, the beds filled with pigs or cinder blocks, or a dozen people, putter along in a cloud of smoke.  Herds of slow-moving cattle use the highway to get from field to barn and back.  There is no choice but to pass, and I did so with great trepidation.  I realized what the wide shoulders are for: when you pass, if you don’t have quite enough room, oncoming traffic slides onto the shoulder for you.  After two or three white-knuckled passes, I was driving like a Salvadoran, and loving it.

Usulutan was a riot.  The roads are narrow, with market stalls and piles of fruit, vegetables, and other goods threatening to spill out into the streets.  Traffic rules seem haphazard, and meekness means death, or at least a huge delay in your trip as you get pushed around by the bold.  In many ways, the bright, lively streets reminded me of some neighborhoods in the Bronx, only more chaotic and anarchic.

We drove through town to a large supermarket, where I again faced almost certain death from culture shock.  The store was large, brightly lit, very modern.  The Modern Foods supermarket where I used to shop on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx was less impressive (granted, Modern was a tiny, shabby store, but how many times would I find El Salvador more modern than the US?).  The goods on the shelves were a curious mix of the familiar and the exotic.  A dozen different kinds of cooking oil lined one aisle, while another had bags of Doritos.  Hershey’s candybars tempted us at the checkouts.

We got our five jugs of water loaded into the truck, and we set off again.  This time, I had to make a left turn out of the parking lot onto the busiest street in Usulutan.  “Just ease out and see if someone will let you go,” Sister advised.  I did so, finding a small gap I could quirt through.  I felt like a real professional.  Just before we left the town, Sister told me to pull over at an ice cream shop, where we treated ourselves before heading back home.

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Landscape of Conflict

As I watched the scenery from the back of the cattle truck, bouncing into the others in the truck with me as the road became rough, I thought how familiar yet strange the landscape looked.  In one moment it reminded me of California, with rolling hills covered with dry, golden grass, and small groves of dusty trees providing some shade to groups of cattle.  The trees, though, were cashew and mango instead of oak and eucalyptus, and instead of brown and white Herefords, many of the cattle had the distinctive neck hump of a crossbred brahmin.  In another instant, the truck careened down a steep pitch and into a small canyon shaded by tall trees festooned with hanging vines trailing in the stony brook, and I saw the cool streambed of the Massachusetts mountains.  Up the hill and around the corner we were presented with a savanna that would not have looked out of place in an African postcard.  Imperialism teaches us that otherness is all, and the differences between landscapes mirror the differences between people, but all I could see were the similarities.

On Wednesday afternoon the cattle truck took us northwest, parallel to the Rio Lempa, on a swooping rollercoaster of dusty roads and sweeping views of the volcanic peaks and the wide river.  The first time we saw the road disappear into a tributary, we all held our breaths in trepidation, but by the third or fourth water crossing, we were prepared, and even shouted a little in excitement.  This time the truck stopped in the shallow water and we got out to walk up a short path to a small, level bluff overlooking the shallow river.  We unloaded the two trucks and set up the chairs and the table for all of the food Morena had packed for us–rice, beans, tortillas, and peanut butter sandwiches.

As we ate I felt overcome by the peacefulness of the area.  The trees provided enough shade and protection from the tropical sun, and a slight breeze rippled the shadows.  The gurgling and chuckling of the water over the stones served as a counterpoint to the splash and slap of a family just upstream at a bend in the river washing their clothes and smacking the wet cloth on rocks.  A couple of little boys were hanging from a branch that stuck out over the water, and they hooted and shouted in little Tarzan voices as they hurled themselves into the river.

After lunch, the women and men who had joined us in the little town near Puente San Marcos began to speak.  Their calm, quiet voices and the pastoral setting belied the import of their stories.  In the 1980s, the Salvadoran government began a Tierra Arrasada, or scorched earth policy, where villages were destroyed in order to get rid of any potential guerillas or guerilla hiding places.  Using planes, helicopters, and artillery thoughtfully provided by the U.S. government, the Salvador military blew up the tiny shacks that housed the people and then set out to gun down any refugees running from the destruction.

One of the women speaking told how she came down the steep hillside behind me and to my left, slipping and tumbling on the steep rocks.  A sick old man walked beside her, and another woman carried her baby in her arms.  To my right and in front of me, the military had set up and sent out a withering cross fire, a murderous barrage of bullets.  One woman hid her baby in a crevice in the rocks, hoping it would survive the onslaught.  The people wandered for days without food, shelter, or water.  The military had poisoned the ground and the river to make it impossible for the people to survive.

One old man, sitting quietly, wearing a red western shirt and white straw cowboy hat spoke even more quietly, his face stony and expressionless.  He, too, had been caught in the strife.  He remembered C-130 Hercules aircraft flying over.  He explained how warplanes strafed the small villages, blowing apart their little houses, and later, how the soldiers came into the villages to knock down what was left of the walls so no one could return safely.  He then told us that his wife and seven children–his entire family–had disappeared, most likely slaughtered, during the war.

Later, we piled back in the truck and backtracked for a while before taking a road that bore northward.  We stopped at the rugged bluff of La Quesera and climbed out again. Between October 20 and 24, 1981, the Salvadoran military massacred between 600 and 800 Salvadoran citizens–civilians, women, children–at this hillside, this Central American Golgotha.

I walked around the site.  At the southern end, the small memorial, built and paid for by the people and a few donations from outside the country.  The government, led by the same political party that had been in power during the massacre, wanted to forget.  The memorial roof is in the shape of a dove holding an olive branch in its beak.  Its outstretched wings guard a curved wall and a mural depicting the hopes and fears of the capmesinos.  Archbishop Romero’s likeness stares out of the center of the mural.  In front a low concrete slab rises about a foot.  On its top are two steel plates, padlocked.  These are the doors that lead to the crypt where the remains of 43 recovered and identified bodies are kept.  Although about 700 died, only this handful of bodies has been recovered, for a variety of reasons.  First, the hogs in the area attacked the bodies, scattering bones down the hillside.  Then the black vultures moved in, followed by the rainy season’s mudslides and wind.  Earthquakes and time have contributed their part to effacing the memory.  But the biggest eraser remains the intransigent government, which still claims that a mere 43 bodies is not enough evidence to support any claims of a massacre and thus further investigation.

I leave the group and walk north.  The ground of the massacre is a level hilltop, roughly oval in shape, and reminds me of the deck of some large ship.  The hillside slopes away on all sides, and I can see other hills rising in the distance.  Every direction I turn I see only hills leading up to craggy volcanic mountains, all covered with lush tropical green.  No human habitation anywhere, in an area that once saw dozens of small villages.  The survivors are, not surprisingly, reluctant to come back.  I walk to the north end, what I think of as the stern of the ship.  A rickety log and corrugated steel structure stands forlornly.  It might be a structure used by the infrequent anthropological teams that come to dig for more victims.  A piece of the steel roof hangs by a nail and waves in the breeze.  The wind blowing through the building creates a low moaning sound, a desolate whistle.

I walk to the port side of the hilltop.  The brilliant sun is blinded by huge clouds, and shadows and golden rays of sunshine alternate.  The wind is the only sound, and I feel an otherworldliness here at this site of slaughter.  My hair blows back in the increasing wind, and I feel a chill despite the tropical heat.  All around I see cloud shadows racing over the hillsides like the shadows of the never forgotten gunships that rained fire and death out of the sky.  The dead have no voice but the low, incessant moaning of the wind.

I go back to the group.  We shake hands, thank the speakers for being so brave to tell their stories.  We pose for pictures.  We eat watermelon and pineapple.  We climb back in the cattle truck and ride back to Tierra Blanca.  We are numb, but later that night, writing in my journal, the pages keep blurring unaccountably, the same way my computer screen does now.

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Still Working

When we first visited the worksites, one of the men from the community at Hacienda said that we would probably not work past 10 o’clock.  I thought this was a wildly pessimistic view.  Sure, most of the students have not done a lot of physical labor recently, but I have been training seriously for bike races so I’m in good shape.  Plus, back in grad school I used to work construction, so I knew my way around hand tools.  Part of the reason for his opinion was the tropic heat: El Salvador is only 12 degrees north of the equator, and that means it’s hot there all year round.  Again, I scoffed inwardly at this.  It gets plenty warm in Connecticut in August, let me tell you.

I can admit it:  I was wrong.

After the engineer’s crew had lined out the foundation, Mino showed me how he wanted me to scratch out lines with the pointed end of the pick to outline the trench that we would then excavate.  Even though I speak no Spanish, we were able to communicate with lots of hand gestures, very simple words, and pantomime.  I scratched out the outline and then set to work with the other end of the pick, churning up the hard, rocky dirt.  Several times Mino and some of the other men offered advice, shouting “Duro!  Duro!” which they reinforced with gestures that made me realize that “duro” meant that I was to chop at the ground even harder.  So I did.

After fifteen minutes I needed a break.  This was not bad at all, though, since my fellow gringos (or gringas, rather) were taking breaks after five or ten minutes.  Then we saw the little kids come in and pick up the shovels to begin scooping the chopped up dirt out of the trenches.  Skinny little barefoot boys and shyly smiling little girls were tossing dirt aside with smooth, economical strokes and were not even breaking a sweat.  That meant it was time to jump back in and work even harder.  “Duro!”

As we were working, we noticed a group of little boys in the field next to us flinging a stick up in a huge tree.  Soon after that, some of the boys had climbed into its branches, swinging and hooting at each other like little boys all over the world pretending to be monkeys.  After a while, one boy walked up holding the bottom hem of his shirt in his teeth to make a carry sack of his shirt.  The shirt was loaded with mangoes that they had gathered from the large tree.  They shyly offered us some and then sat back, sucking on their own mangoes and smiling at us out of the corners of their eyes.

Then we were back to work.  I had applied sunscreen, but it was unnecessary since I was coated with a thick layer of dust and grime that had to add up to an SPF of at least 100.  My t-shirt was drenched with seat and muddy with dust.  The bandanna I was wearing on my head overflowed and dripped sweat into my eyes.  I started checking my watch, waiting for the 10:30 quitting bell that would arrive in the form of the pickup truck that would take us back home.  They were late, though, and we kept at it, laughing at our ineptitude, until after 11.

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At Work in El Salvador

There were three work sites for us:  the chapel site at San Pedro, another chapel site at Hacienda, and the field-clearing about two blocks away.  I really wanted to do something hard, for some reason, and swinging a pick around sounded nice and hard, so I volunteered to go to one of the chapel sites.  San Pedro sounded like the more appealing dig, since, of the two places we had scouted the day before, San Pedro looked prettier.  The clearing for the new chapel was next to the community’s old chapel, a small building of mud bricks, old boards, and corrugated steel roof.  The clearing was at an especially rugged section of rocky, rutted dirt road, across from a house built up of what looked like bamboo sticks and the ubiquitous corrugated steel.  Huge trees partially shaded the area, lending a bucolic air quite different from the poverty-borne squalor that marked so much of the countryside.

But this trip was, for me, at least partly about moving outside my comfort zones, and, since there were no other men going to Hacienda (there were only five of us on the trip), I said I would go there instead.  The site here was more disturbing, less comforting.  For one thing, it was more in the center of the community, which meant that the reality of Salvadoran life for the campesinos could not hide behind some tall trees and shrubs.  A house–really a shack–made of corrugated steel (seeing a pattern here?) stood next to the space devoted to the chapel, and there were some rumblings that the builder of the shack had encroached on the property that rightfully belonged to the church.

The rutted, rocky road leading up to the site was filled with garbage, a sight common throughout the country.  The obnoxious plastic bags we all carry are an insistent presence in Central America, and they reside with their best pals, the empty plastic water or soda bottle.  The scrawny Salvadoran street dogs ran about, and my canine-friendly heart hurt looking at a mother dog, her hip bones poking painfully through her mangy fur, push her single pup away and hobble painfully away from its demanding cries.

Above all, at this site, there would be more people.  At this point, I was still terribly shy about meeting the Salvadorans, and I didn’t know what I could say to them, especially since my Spanish is limited mostly to food items, and I couldn’t very well say to the people, “Tortilla!”  This, actually, would have been appropriate, as there was a small gas-powered mill next door that was churning out the dough to make the small, thick, and very tasty Salvadoran version of tortillas.

We arrived at the work site early, and with a little trepidation.  Someone had expressed a concern that the people from the community would not be there, and if they were not there, we could not work because our mission was not to perform charitable work but to work alongside the people.  We were left with the sense that there was something less than trustworthy about some of the people–maybe they just wouldn’t be interested in showing up.

Despite our worries, we were met at the dusty and already warm site with smiles and friendly waves.  The man in charge greeted each of us with a solemn handshake and a “Buenas.”  He then pointed out the work that needed to be done: the spot where the chapel would one day stand was full of trash, some weeds and brush, and a huge pile of rocks.  All of this would have to move.

A couple of the girls and some of the community people began to rake the trash into a burnable pile, while I surveyed the rocks with some of the other girls.  We all started to bend down to grab the rocks, straighten up, walk over to the place where we would leave the rocks, and then walk back to do it all over again.  I realized right away that this was not efficient, and organized us into a bucket brigade, passing rocks from hand to hand.  The foreman of the job noticed and gave me a slight smile.  I smiled back and nodded.

Soon we had removed the easy rocks on the surface and were down to the harder rocks that were partially buried.  It was time for the pick.  As we got to work digging out more rocks, I was grateful that all of the girls in the crew were jocks–field hockey and soccer, mostly–and they were dedicated to hard work.  After a while we had cleared the site enough for the next stage of the construction project.  Showing remarkably good timing, the crew working with the Roberto, the engineer, showed up and began swinging plumb lines and string to mark out the fifteen by fifteen foot foundation for the new chapel.

Next:  More on working in El Salvador.

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